At 6:58 A.M. on Friday, I pulled into the parking lot of my local Verizon store. Exactly 30 minutes later, I was back in my car, with a splashy new Motorola Droid in hand. Now, after spending three days with the device, I feel prepared to offer my own take on the latest, and clearly greatest, Android phone.
There’s no denying it: The Droid is a heavy phone. Sure, it’s only a couple ounces heavier than the iPhone 3GS, but you feel the difference immediately. And if you’re moving from a BlackBerry Curve, as I was, the weight difference is significant. However, the Droid’s music features mean I no longer have to carry an iPod Touch around, so I’ve actually made a net reduction in the amount of device weight I shuffle around with each day.
Some critics, such as my friend Dylan Tweney at Wired, have remarked that the Droid’s slide-out keypad seems like an afterthought, an unnecessary appendage given that the phone’s on-screen keypad is adequate for most tasks. I agreed initially. In fact, I scarcely touched the physical keypad for the first half of the day on Friday, until I found myself in an extended IM session with a colleague. For typing-heavy apps, that physical keypad has proven indispensible, and I now intuitively switch between the on-screen and physical keypads while using the phone, without losing a beat. I suspect I’d be somewhat less satisfied with the Droid at this point if that slide-out keypad weren’t there.
The direction pad, on the other hand, has yet to prove its value to me. Because it takes up a fair chunk of real estate to the right of the keys, it increases the learning curve on using the keys for someone who’s grown accustomed to BlackBerry keypads. I might feel differently about it if I were a gamer, but I’ve yet to download any games for this thing, and I doubt I’ll get around to doing so anytime soon.
Of course, the Droid’s biggest asset, quite literally, is its display. Web sites, pictures, and videos look fantastic on the 3.7-inch, 480×854 touch screen. It’s hard to feel disappointed about the phone’s boxy carapace when the only thing my eyes take in is this massive, beautiful screen.
There is little question that the iPhone has, for a couple of years now, represented the platinum standard in smartphone interface design. It’s simple, elegant, and intuitive. However, that simplicity comes at the expense of customizability and control. Apple has deliberately barred developers from tweaking the iPhone interface in an effort to keep the look and feel of the device consistent for all users. There is a certain logic to this policy, and the payoff for iPhone users is unrivaled ease of use.
Contrasted against the iPhone, the Droid’s menus are somewhat complex. Fortunately, Verizon stayed its typically heavy hand and spared this device the usual Verizonization of the menus. So what you get with Droid is a standard Android 2.0 interface, for which there is much to be said.
The phone’s main screen is divided into three areas, only one of which is visible at any given time. You slide the window left and right to get to the other two areas, which you can populate with apps or widgets, at your liking.
The notification bar at the top of the display is expandable to give you access to the apps that demand attention. For instance, when an e-mail comes in, you can slide the notification area down to get details and–if you want to–tap the message to view it in Gmail. This is a terrifically convenient feature that lets you see what’s happening without necessarily having to go to a specific app.
Android’s settings menus can be somewhat muddled, however, and force you to tap through multiple levels of submenus to do things like change wireless networks.
By default, the main screen features a search widget, which you can tap on to initiate a Google search. The drawback to this is that it takes up space that could otherwise be used to place more apps on the home screen. Meanwhile, you can get to a search widget anytime by tapping the Search button on the front of the phone. So within a couple of hours of turning on the device, I ditched that widget to make room for more app icons.
Some iPhone fans have derided Android’s interface as a Linuxy kludge, and I have to take exception to this. This OS features as many slick effects as the iPhone does, with smooth sliding menus and subtle animations throughout. And while it’s possible to load up as many ugly icons and wallpapers as you like, this is a matter of user choice, not a design issue.
As a fun bonus, the Droid switches to a streamlined clock mode when docked in its optional Multimedia Station accessory. In this mode, it displays the time and date, the local weather, and offers options for listening to music, viewing picture slideshows, and alarms. It even sports a little dimmer icon, so you could use it as a bedside alarm clock, if you wanted to.
All in all, the Droid’s interface is that of a mature mobile OS.
One feature that sets Android apart from other mobile platforms–not including the iPhone, of course–is its robust app store. While Android Market currently offers a fraction of the apps that Apple’s App Store does, that number is rapidly growing, and the momentum generated by the Droid and Verizon’s massive user base will likely spur a broader embrace from the development community.
I spent much of my first two days with the phone downloading various productivity and lifestyle apps, and I’ve barely managed to get my head around the massive selection that currently exists. I’ve found an unholy ton of interesting and useful utilities for customizing the phone, a wealth of apps for creating and editing documents, and some cool health and fitness apps that will likely make this device an essential tool for every facet of my daily life.
In reality, it doesn’t matter whether you have 10,000 apps to choose from or 100,000. What matters is whether you can find the apps you need. At present, there are a few apps I’d love to have for Android that aren’t yet available (and are available on the iPhone). For example, my bank doesn’t yet offer an Android app for mobile banking, but does have an iPhone app. I can only hope that the Droid’s popularity helps to get the ball rolling in cases like this.
But of the apps that do exist, quality is generally high. From the little widget that tracks my phone’s battery life to the detailed calorie counter I downloaded this morning, the interfaces are fairly polished and the apps are robust. Inevitably, there are some lame apps in the bunch, but that’s the case with every platform.
Gmail integration is as clean as you’d expect from a Google product, and many of Google’s services–such as Picasa, Google Talk, and Google Voice–integrate seamlessly into the phone. There is still a lack of integration with Google Docs, but it appears Google is working on this.
The most touted new feature of the Droid is its GPS navigation, which will be standard on other Android 2.0 devices as they roll out. I tried it out on several trips, both on foot and by car, over the last few days, and frankly, it’s just plain awesome.
The GPS offers navigation in three modes: driving, walking, and public transit. I gave each a shot. Not only does the device quickly and accurately pinpoint your location with the assisted GPS, but it actually gives verbal directions that come respectably close to correctly pronouncing most street names. Public transit mode offers up bus and rail schedules for your route.
Because my car has a built-in GPS, I don’t necessarily expect to get a lot of use out of this one. But the next time I’m on foot and need turn-by-turn guidance through an unfamiliar city, I know I’ll be in good hands. Overall, the quality and versatility of this GPS are difficult to match with stand-alone units, let alone the expensive add-on navigators you can get for other phones.
Like a lot of Verizon customers, I had been holding out for a better smartphone than RIM and Microsoft had to offer. I lusted after the iPhone for a long time, and even considered jumping ship to get my hands on a T-Mobile G1 or an HTC Hero. But I could never persuade myself to trade Verizon’s amazing coverage for a better handset. So I waited.
It was worth the wait.
Data connections on the Droid are blazing fast. The Web browser loads pages immediately, and apps connect to their servers without hesitation. Friends and colleagues who’ve checked out my phone have been unanimous in their praise for Verizon’s data service on this device.
Also worth noting is the fact that Verizon is going to begin offering tethering service with the Droid next year, for an additional fee of $30 per month. That can sound like a lot, but given that service on a separate data card will set you back upwards of $60 per month, this is actually a reasonable option for those who only occasionally need to access the 3G data network from a laptop or netbook.
For most smartphones, actual phone calls are practically an afterthought. And with the Droid’s sprawling set of computing features, it’s easy to forget that calling actually matters. Of course, it does matter.
I’ve had issues in the past with call quality on some Motorola phones. My Moto Q, for instance, offered only mediocre reception compared with other handsets I had used on Verizon’s network. So far, I’ve only had a few conversations on my Droid, so it’s still too early for me to render a judgment on call quality.
Where the Droid does impress, though, is in its use of Google Voice. Having used Google Voice for a couple of years now (since the days when it was called Grand Central), I’ve grown dependent on the service for my business calling. Droid lets me extend that user experience to my cell phone with true seamlessness and style.
I had already been using Google Voice with my BlackBerry, which also gave me the ability to place calls from my Google Voice number and read my voicemail transcripts on the phone. But the Droid’s massive touch-sensitive screen is a gargantuan improvement over the experience of scrolling around the menus with the BlackBerry’s trackball. Google Voice makes voicemail visual, and this phone delivers those visuals splendidly while letting me toggle between my cell phone number and my Google Voice number with each call.
Like the iPhone, the Droid has a built-in media player. And unlike the BlackBerry, it’s a media player you’d actually want to use.
It turns out that touch screens–including that of the iPod Touch, naturally–are pretty much the best interface for media playback. Even with audio, it’s great to be able to see album art and swipe through a track to a particular point. The Droid’s music player has nearly the same functionality and usability as the iPod Touch during playback. And, while they don’t look identical, anyone accustomed to an iPod Touch or iPhone would encounter practically zero learning curve when moving to the Droid.
The biggest difference between the iPhone’s media playback features and that of the Droid is iTunes. Android doesn’t work with iTunes at all. But Android isn’t designed to work directly with any particular desktop app. Instead, you just plug in the player and drag any DRM-free files straight to the device. Optionally, you can use Windows Media Player to sync files to the Droid, if you want to. And Motorola offers a download for Windows called Media Link that does the same thing for all of your media.
For the most part, the Droid is a stand-alone device. So its principal offering for music downloads is not a desktop app, but a direct link to the Amazon MP3 store. Amazon still has some growing to do before it will rival iTunes, though. But, however you buy your media, you can get it onto the Droid as long as it’s not crippled with DRM.
For podcast freaks, there’s a whole mess of podcatching apps available on Android Market. I’ve been trying out a few, and so far I’m happiest with a freebie called BeyondPod, which also tracks other kinds of RSS feeds.
Audio quality on the Droid is excellent, and will typically depend more on your speakers or headphones than on the phone itself. My one complaint is that listening to music while plugged into the car charger produces a hideous buzz that ruins the whole experience. This happened with my iPod Touch, too, though.
It’s an unfortunate reality that powerful devices have to use a lot of, well, power. The Droid is no exception. Operating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and all of the various apps at once (it does multitask, after all) will drain this phone in a matter of hours.
On Friday, after charging the device fully and heading off to work, I neglected to put the phone back on a charger until it was too late. Consequently, because I had used nearly every feature of the device throughout the day, the phone died quietly in my pocket while I was having dinner at a local restaurant, and I took a long, lonely train ride home with no Droid to keep me company.
On Saturday I decided to keep tabs on battery life throughout the day, but still put the device through its paces almost constantly. After about 11 hours of playing with apps, listening to music, driving with the GPS, taking pictures, and chatting with friends on IM, the battery was dead again.
Sunday I thought I’d take a different tack and keep the phone in its Multimedia Station cradle whenever I wasn’t using it. This made a world of difference, but the battery still dwindled down to 40 percent in the six hours that I had it away from the charger.
Managing battery life on a multitasking mobile device like the Droid is a matter of making compromises. You basically have two options: Use it lightly and diligently kill any apps that you aren’t using in the moment, or keep it in the charger whenever you possibly can. I’ve opted for combination of the two.
The fact is, I hate having to muck around turning off wireless connections and killing apps, so I’ve purchased a couple of Multimedia Stations, a wall charger, and a car charger. This lets me charge the phone at home, plug it in while I’m driving, and charge it on my desk at work. When I’m traveling, the wall charger will suffice for keeping my phone alive whenever I’m in a hotel room.
For times when I have to go longer between charges, I’ve downloaded an app called Advanced Task Killer Free, which can quickly terminate any app (or all of them, if I so choose) with a couple of quick taps.
Sure, it’s annoying to have to worry at all about battery life after years of using less power-hungry phones. But that’s the trade off you have to make for a more powerful phone. Nobody said life would be fair.
It’s still far too early to fully determine how happy I’ll be with the Droid, but things are looking good. So far, the toughest question anyone has asked me about this device was this:
“If Verizon got the iPhone tomorrow, would you rather have that than the Droid?”
That’s a tough question to answer, because it’s purely hypothetical. But at the moment, I don’t think I would. Over the long haul, the Droid app selection is bound to improve. Meanwhile, the device does actually do some cool things that the iPhone can’t. And I’m not particularly moved by the small differences between the two interfaces.
More importantly, I like being immune to the whims of Apple. As Jobs and Company continue to exercise draconian control over the App Store approval process and crack down on jailbreakers, I don’t have to worry. Android is a mostly open platform, and that fact doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
So, as I prepare to call it a night after a long weekend of working this little phone to death, I’m putting it back in its cradle to recharge. Tomorrow’s a big day, and my Droid has a lot of work to do.
Robert Strohmeyer is a senior editor at PC World. He’s owned dozens of cell phones over the years, and the Droid is his favorite so far. Robert tweets as @rstrohmeyer.